California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

What is a Professional Learning Community?

Dr. Rick DuFour defines a professional learning community (PLC) as “a group of people working interdependently toward the same goal.”1 Interdependence is an essential element because it:

  • Provides equal access (equity, or universal access) to quality teaching by strengthening each teacher’s practice through collaboration, coaching, and shared planning

  • Ends teacher isolation (thus reducing burnout)

  • Helps teachers work smarter by sharing the tasks of analyzing data, creating common assessment tools, and devising other strategies for both students who struggle and those who need more challenge

  • Enables teachers on grade-level (interdisciplinary) teams to devise lessons that teach reading and writing across the curriculum

  • Provides teacher professional growth and job satisfaction through intellectual renewal, new learning, and cultivating leadership2

Although counselors, library/media instructors, and special education teachers are important members of the schoolwide learning community, teachers are the primary members of professional learning communities that focus on instruction. The PLCs are critical for improving instructional practice. According to education researcher Mike Schmoker, professional learning communities are the surest, fastest way to instructional improvement. He characterizes two main practices that distinguish them:

  • Teachers establish a common, concise set of essential curricular standards and teach to them on a roughly common schedule.

  • They meet regularly to analyze teaching methods and their consequences (common assessment results).3

Professional learning communities are central to the middle grades philosophy. They look at student needs, learning styles, and grade level standards as parts of a whole and collaboratively improve their professional practices to achieve specific results in student learning.

Many middle school faculties do not use the term PLC, although they collaborate on teaching teams. However, the term teaming has evolved into a more strategic approach, bringing all elements of developmentally responsive, standards-based education together instead of allowing individuals or groups to work in isolation from the larger community. A PLC approach includes decisions that all members of the team support about scheduling, staff development planning, and when and how to include interventions. Teaming in the new sense, often reflected by the term PLC, draws on the resources of all members of the school staff, thus strengthening the outcomes. The collaborative discussions build on the expertise of knowledgeable, caring staff members who understand the dynamics of the school community and student needs.

Other types of teams can continue to operate alongside the larger professional learning community by using the interdependent focus of a professional learning community. Each type of team serves students in a different way. In many middle schools, there are two major types of teaching teams:

  • Interdisciplinary teams provide the small learning community connections across a grade level that help students feel connected.
  • Departmental teams help to ensure consistency in delivering grade-level, standards-based content. They can achieve DuFour’s three Big Ideas: what students should learn, how data-driven results (from common assessments) inform teachers about student learning, and which interventions will help students who do not meet standards.

According to the National Middle School Association (NMSA), interdisciplinary team teaching:

Consists of two or more teachers from different subject areas and the group of students they commonly instruct. Team teachers plan, coordinate, and evaluate curriculum and instruction across academic areas. Teams cultivate meaningful and regular communication with families. Teams often share the same schedule and the same area of the building. For teachers, teams provide a collaborative and supportive work group. For students, teams offer stable relationships with teachers and peers.4

Researchers describe three advantages of interdisciplinary teaching for students.

First, because teachers share the same groups of students, they can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, making it easier to meet their needs. Second, interdisciplinary teams of teachers can facilitate connections across different disciplines. Finally, there are more opportunities for positive peer and teacher-student relationships because teachers on the same team teach the same groups of students.5

A key component of both interdisciplinary and departmental team teaching is common planning time (refer to Recommendation 3—Time, for a more complete discussion about flexible scheduling that allows time for team planning and preparation ). Team members have the same free period for planning, coordinating, and discussing learning needs together. One of the key roles of the PLC is to determine how to provide instruction to meet the goals of student learning. The State Board of Education-adopted content standards define what students need to know and be able to do. How to provide instruction to ensure that students master the content of the standards is the realm of the teacher and the professional learning community. Discussion about the standards, the texts, and the tests helps all teachers to be on the same page about what students need to learn and what constitutes evidence of learning. That, in turn helps the teams to develop common assessments (refer to a discussion about common benchmarks assessments in Recommendation 2—Instruction, Intervention, and Assessment) to determine if all students in a particular grade level or course actually learned what teachers taught.

A discussion about what students need to know should include what PLC members mean by rigor (see Recommendation 1—Rigor for more on this topic.) The ongoing discussion about rigor includes:

The Middle Grades Community—Focused on Learning

NCLB and California Requirement for Highly Qualified Teachers and Principals

1 Richard Dufour, Critical Priorities in Building a Professional Learning Community. Cybercast presentation to the Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, March 2006.
2 Pamela Grossman, Sam Wineburg, and Stephen Woolworth, What Makes Teacher Community Different from a Gathering of Teachers? (PDF; Outside Source), Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy and Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA) (December 2000), 49-53.
3 Mike Schmoker, Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006, 106-108.
4 S. B. Mertens and N. Flowers, Research Summary—Interdisciplinary Teaming (PDF; Outside Source), Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association (May 2004).
5 Jaana Juvonen and others, Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School (PDF; Outside Source). Prepared by the RAND Corporation. Arlington, Va.: Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 2004, 21.

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